- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

EAGLE, Colo. — Kobe Bryant was charged yesterday with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman in a case bound to tarnish the career of one of the NBA’s brightest young superstars.

Bryant denied the charge, fighting back tears at a news conference in Los Angeles and saying he was guilty only of adultery.

“I didn’t force her to do anything against her will. I’m innocent,” he said, sitting next to his wife, Vanessa. “I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery.”

The 24-year-old Los Angeles Lakers’ guard faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation if convicted of the single felony count, Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said.

Hurlbert said Bryant forced the victim into “submission” through physical force but refused to disclose other details.

The woman worked the front desk at the exclusive spa where Bryant was staying while in the state for knee surgery. Hurlbert said she would not be made available for comment.

Bryant’s attorney, Pamela Mackey, said he will plead innocent.

Speaking at Bryant’s news conference at the Lakers’ arena, Mackey said the defense will be that the sexual encounter was “between two consenting adults.”

Bryant struggled to speak, his voice quivering. His wife, who had their first child in January, held his right hand.

“I love my wife with all my heart. She’s my backbone,” he said, turning to her.

Earlier, Vanessa Bryant released a statement, saying she stood by her husband. “He is not a criminal,” she said.

Bryant, free on $25,000 bail, must return to court in Eagle on Aug.6 for a hearing.

The case has riveted the sports world for nearly two weeks because it involves one of the NBA’s most magnetic stars. Bryant has also used his clean image to land multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts.

Last month, he signed a multimillion-dollar sneaker deal with Nike to go with contracts he already had with Sprite, McDonald’s and Spalding.

The case also raises questions about Bryant’s summer plans and whether he will be able to play with the U.S. Olympic qualifying team, which begins practice Aug.10 in New York.

The Lakers begin practice in October for the 2003-04 season.

“Naturally, we’re disappointed with today’s announcement,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “While there are many questions concerning this issue, we will wait for time and the judicial process to answer them.”

NBA commissioner David Stern said the league would have no comment until the case is settled.

Hurlbert, who took office in December, said he consulted prosecutors around the state and pored over physical evidence and testimony before making his decision.

“This did not come easily,” he said.

Bryant is accused of assaulting the woman June30 at the gated Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in nearby Edwards. Bryant, who was having surgery in Vail, arrived at the lodge that day.

Eagle County sheriff’s deputies took Bryant to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs for tests early July2, later letting him leave in a taxi with his bodyguards.

The woman also underwent tests, and Hurlbert has said he needed information from the state crime lab before making his decision.

Bryant surrendered to authorities July4 and was released an hour later after posting bond.

The arrest was announced July6, prompting a firestorm of media attention on this small mountain town 100 miles west of Denver.

Reporters have swamped the cul-de-sac where the woman lives with her parents, but she has said nothing publicly. Her family has consulted an attorney, who referred all questions to the prosecutor.

The woman is well-known in Eagle as a former high school cheerleader and talented musician who auditioned for “American Idol” last year.

The news stunned basketball fans: Bryant, a five-time All-Star who has already won three titles with the Lakers, is by most accounts a quiet man who prefers dinner with a few friends to joining teammates for a night on the town.

“Oh, no,” said Patricia Brewer, who heard the news at L.A.’s Staples Center, where her daughter was to play in a basketball game later in the day. “I love him so much and I’ll still keep an open mind and hope that this is all a mistake.

“But you know, if it’s true, then he’s just another man masquerading as a family man, fooling us all, and that just makes your heart sink.”

Legal experts said the case could come down to witnesses.

“When you start with both people saying there was sex an enormous amount of the evidence doesn’t matter anymore,” said Larry Pozner, former president of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Did anyone hear anything unusual. Was her clothing torn? Was he bruised, was she bruised? These become critical.”

Loyola University law school professor Laurie Levenson said if the case goes to trial, a jury might feel a personal connection to Bryant, just as they did in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

“As a celebrity he comes in with a super presumption of innocence,” she said. “Any defendant whom the public knows by his first name, their reaction is, ‘No, not Kobe.’ You will come in with jurors thinking, ‘We don’t want him to have done it.’”

Sports marketing experts said the case will be a permanent blow to Bryant’s image and could cost him millions in lost endorsements.

“The image was of a perfect role model, a superstar athlete who didn’t have a parking ticket, the all-American boy and now, well, that image is tarnished,” said Bob Williams, chief executive of Burns Sports & Celebrities Inc. in Evanston, Ill.

“As of today and until the trial, his image is going to take a beating.”

Last fall, Williams’ firm commissioned a poll that listed Bryant as the third-best product endorser in sports, behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.

Bryant entered the NBA in 1996 at age 18, straight out of high school. He has drawn comparisons to the league’s greatest players and helped Los Angeles win titles from 2000-02.

Along with his determination, Bryant has also shown class, something many fans feel are missing from other NBA stars. He wept when the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs by San Antonio in May, and he wore his hospital ID bracelet in a game the day after his daughter was born.

He married Vanessa Laine in April 2001. The two met on the set of a music video where Laine was working, and got engaged while she was still in high school. Vanessa gave birth to their first child, Natalia Diamante Bryant, in January.


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